In 2012 when insurgents were unleashing a string of attacks across Iraq, who would have dared take on the task of bringing warring religious factions together in face-to-face talks?
That would be Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, an immigrant to the U.S. from the Middle East and founder of Kommon Denominator, a Virginia-based consultancy.
"I believe that even the people who do the most horrendous things do them for a reason," Alma told The Story Exchange. "If you give them an opportunity to rethink what they are doing, there is opportunity for transformation."
Alma is a self-defined optimist, a trait that's vital in the tough business of resolving conflicts -- whether it's in countries torn apart by war or local school boards trying to ease tensions with parents and communities.
Her roots lie in the Middle East; Alma was born in Saudi Arabia and was raised in Egypt and Jordan, where she met her husband.
Growing up, her mother convened "outstanding role models" in the family's home: "Arab women who were educated, who were engineers, who were doctors, who were teachers. I believe that their role has been very powerful in my life," Alma says.
In 1989 Alma and her husband Sami - who had grown up in the U.S. - moved to America with their three children. An extrovert, Alma embraced American life, making new friends who would come for dinner, volunteering for non-profits that focused on mediation and conflict resolution, and becoming involved in her children's activities. Life was good, and a decade after she arrived, she decided to pursue her Ph.D.
In 2001, she was writing her dissertation proposal when terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11. She knew she had to change course in her studies because "everything else became irrelevant."
Her upbringing in the Middle East, her life as an immigrant, and her education in conflict resolution put Alma in a unique position, which led her to focus on the impact the attacks had on those working on conflict resolution.
After 9/11, she helped organize meetings of friends, colleagues and members of immigrant groups to talk about the tragic events and how to heal.
Like many Arab-Americans, Alma was put in the position of defending herself and others, as a combination of raw emotion, fear and suspicion threatened to take hold of many communities.
Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh Indian immigrant, was gunned down in Arizona, apparently because he looked Muslim or Arab. It had a deep impact on many immigrants, including Alma. "The attacks forced ethnic communities who were perceived to be a threat to the U.S. to explain who they are," Alma said.
Her thesis would be called "Reflections on Practice: The Impact of 9/11 on Conflict Resolvers" and its aim was to provide insights on practicing conflict resolution under conditions of trauma.
"What [the attacks] confirmed to me was that as a member of any immigrant community, you can not live on the periphery of society. People cannot speak on your behalf or defend you, if they do not know you," she said.
Her experiences would lead her to start Kommon Denominator, a conflict management consulting firm.
Last year she travelled to Iraq for the United Nations to bring together religious leaders from various communities and facilitate dialogue that focused on issues of tension and violence.
"Some of these groups have hurt other groups just because they did not understand their religion very well, or they stereotyped them, or they did not have a deeper understanding of the commonalities that they have."
Alma says that the workshops created a safe environment where these community leaders could begin to talk about difficult issues. Many who attended her workshops were deeply traumatized, having lost literally hundreds of people in their lives through violence. They were coming together and speaking for the first time since the war began.
After the workshops Alma went back for a follow up visit a month later to hear reports on their progress.
"When we came back we noticed that interpersonal relationships have been built, commitment to future collaborations were happening. I think the biggest highlight was the shift in people's thinking [as they questioned] 'what is my role in all of this?'"
Alma says she doesn't resolve conflicts, but instead provides people with the processes and tools to do so themselves.
"We facilitate the conversation so the people who are involved with something that is bothering them ... they are the ones who come up with the solution."
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